By 1962 the careers of two of filmdom's leading female stars, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, were in decline. They had been the biggest leads in Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s, but as with most actresses, after a certain age the good roles came less frequently. "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" changed all that. It was the first and only time the two ladies, screen competitors for years, appeared together in a film (unless you count 1944's "Hollywood Canteen," in which they played themselves), and it proved an instant box-office success.
Of course, it might not have happened at all if it were not for Hitchcock's "Psycho" a couple of years earlier. "Psycho" opened the door to a flock of gothic horror movies in the following years, and the similarities between it and "Baby Jane" are evident not only in their characters and events, but in their low-budget productions, their black-and-white camera work, and their musical scores. Playfully, a neighbor in "Baby Jane" is named Bates.
So, what could have been better than to cast two aging rival movie stars as two aging rival sisters, the Hudsons, Jane (Davis) and Blanche (Crawford). While Crawford is rather subdued throughout the film, Davis chews up the scenery as one of the most bizarre, depraved villainesses you'll ever encounter. The movie is a splendid romp from beginning to end, thanks to the energy of the two stars and to its director, Robert Aldrich ("Kiss Me Deadly," "Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte," "The Flight of the Phoenix," "The Dirty Dozen," "The Longest Yard").
Incidentally, stories are legend about how much the two actresses hated one another going into the movie, and tales abound about how they hated each other on the set, apparently doing spiteful things to one another during the shooting. How much of these stories we can believe and how much was created by their press agents to bolster ticket sales is hard to say. The trivia teems with gossip and innuendo and makes almost as good reading as the movie makes watching.
In any case, "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" begins in 1917, at a time when Baby Jane Hudson was a leading child star on the vaudeville stage. She was so popular that dolls of her curly-headed self were best-sellers. Meanwhile, her sister Blanche waited in the wings, cringing at the thought of her sister's accomplishment, the Baby Jane dolls being sold in the theater foyer, and Jane's unkind, spoiled-brat attitude.
Fast forward a few years to 1935: Both sisters were now in Hollywood movies, Blanche a huge star, Jane a has-been tagalong. The tables had turned, and while Blanche bought an old house that once belonged to Rudolph Valentino for the both of them to live in, Jane began drinking herself into oblivion. Until the night an automobile accident crippled Blanche in the driveway of the house, and it was thought Jane was responsible. From that point on, neither sister acted in movies again, living a reclusive life to themselves, Blanche forever confined to a wheelchair and Jane forever dressing up in her little-girl, "Baby Jane" clothes and curls. And so the years passed.
Understand, director Aldrich always intended the movie be taken in the Hitchcock vein, his continually infusing it with a tone of black humor. It's not surprising, then, that twenty-seven years later in 1962, the screen should announce the date as "Yesterday." Nor should we should find it surprising to find Ms. Davis in ludicrously childish makeup, a grotesque caricature of her younger self; or that Davis's real-life daughter, B.D. Merrill, should be playing the teenage girl next door. The film is meant in fun, no matter how violent things run.
Anyway, now is where the real revelry begins. Jane has gone completely around the bend, keeping her sister a virtual prisoner in the house, and it's where birds and rats and hammers come into play. The old dear has clearly lost what little mind she had left by this time, and there is one particularly sad, frightening scene where she thinks about her youth, begins singing her old vaudeville songs, and then catches sight of her reflection in the mirror. Her scream is as real as anything in the movie.
With Blanche locked in her room, Jane's mind continues to erode, to the point of her deciding to revive her old stage act and hiring an accompanist, a down-and-out young musician, Edwin Flagg (huge Victor Buono in his first screen role), to work with her. Flagg is only interested in the old broad's money and is willing to ignore her idiosyncrasies. But true to "Psycho" form, Flagg is single and living with his mother. Well, at least they didn't hire Tony Perkins for the role, but the filmmakers at one time did consider Peter Lawford.
The story builds in tension and concludes with an expectedly unexpected ending; but the movie is not without its faults. Mainly, it goes on too long. At 133 minutes, Aldrich could easily have cut half an hour and made a much more intense plot. Then, too, the story's many coincidences pop up too often, and its debts to "Psycho," and to Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard" for that matter, seem a little too obvious. Still, it is a melodrama, after all, and its drawbacks haven't stopped audiences from loving it for decades. I mean, when you think about it, all Blanche had to do was yell out the window to solve her problem, but what fun would there be in that? Better just to enjoy two fine actresses having a field day with their parts.
Warner Bros. present the film in dimensions closely matching its 1.85:1 theatrical-release size, and they have reproduced the film in a high-bit-rate, anamorphic transfer. Together with a pretty good print and some undoubted touching up, the result is easy on the eyes. The already excellent black-and-white photography is further enhanced by the strong B&W contrasts brought out in the DVD reproduction. The use of light and shadow throughout the movie shows up in fine condition, with only a few minor age marks and a light grain separating it from the very best black-and-white film transfers on disc.
There isn't much to say about the Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural audio except that it probably couldn't sound much better than it does. There is little in the way of frequency range or dynamic impact, but the midrange is clear and clean, with virtually no background noise, so it renders dialogue perfectly well.
Disc one of this Two-Disc Special Edition set includes the main feature; a widescreen theatrical trailer; thirty-five scene selections (but no chapter insert); English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. In addition, there is an enormously entertaining audio commentary by actor/writers Charles Busch and John Epperson (Lypsinka), famously known for their transgender roles. They have a gay old time providing insights into the film and its two leads, while clearly enjoying themselves and the movie in the process.
Disc two contains a trio of documentaries, a featurette, and a TV excerpt. First is the new, 2005 documentary "Bette and Joan: Blind Ambition," a twenty-nine-minute examination of the two actresses by writers, film historians, and biographers. Second is "All About Bette," a forty-eight-minute, fifteen-chapter documentary made in 1993 and hosted by Jodie Foster. Third is a BBC documentary, "A Film Profile: Joan Crawford," twenty-eight minutes. Then, there is a six-minute vintage promotional featurette, "Behind the Scenes With Baby Jane," made at the time of the film's production. And, finally, there is a two-minute excerpt featuring Bette Davis on a 1962 "Andy Williams Show."
There is no doubt that Davis and Crawford enjoyed making this film, despite the many stories of their hating one another and hating their work together. They both take an obvious delight in the grotesqueries of the story, and the movie itself remains a hoot. Like most melodramas, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but it is unquestionably fun in its totally off-the-wall manner. Don't be surprised, though, at how many other peculiar films it will remind you of.
The Two-Disc Special Edition of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" may be purchased separately or in "The Bette Davis Collection," Volume 2, which also includes "Jezebel," "The Man Who Came To Dinner," "Marked Woman," "Old Acquaintance," and the documentary "Stardust: The Bette Davis Story."